The Christma season is upon us once again and this year's collection of holiday movies includes one film which deserves special attention. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is scheduled for release on Friday, December 9th and already a kind of Narnia-fever is beginning to grip the entertainment industry as glowing early reviews of the film accumulate.
This adaptation of the now classic series of children's books by the renowned author C.S. Lewis (+1963) is the first big-budget effort undertaken to bring this tale to life though more modest efforts have been made in the past. Any serious reader of English literature will be familiar with the writings of C.S. Lewis whose other works include such classics as The Screwtape Letters, A Grief Observed, The Great Divorce, and Mere Christianity.
The Chronicles of Narnia may appear at first blush as just another childhood fantasy tale to keep the kiddies entertained for a couple of hours during the hectic holiday times. And to be sure this is a movie which promises to entertain and dazzle audiences young and old if early reviews of the film are at all accurate.
However, there is much, much more here for the savvy and well-informed viewer than meets the eye and almost certainly more than will be presented and discussed in Hollywood movie trailers in the marketing run-up. For Christian parents who are willing to invest a bit of time in their children's spiritual development this film is a rare opportunity to make connections between a cinematic event and lessons in the spiritual life.
C.S. Lewis, a contemporary and close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, was a master at hiding deep spiritual truths in seemingly mundane stories and bits of prose. Even when he didn't seem to be writing about profound spiritual truths he invested his writings with meaning. His Christian faith was simply too deeply imbedded in his psyche for this to be avoided.
For instance, his pithy and sarcastic treatment of the bus-ride to Heaven by the citizens of Hell in The Great Divorce is at once hilarious and quite thought-provoking even, dare I say convicting, as he describes the types of characters we can all recognize who are too satisfied in their misery to stay in Heaven even when given the chance.
In Lewis' own preface to this book he describes the fallacy of contemporary views on good and evil:
... in some sense or other, the attempt to make (the marriage of heaven and hell) is perennial. The attempt is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable 'either-or'; that, granted skill and patience and above all time, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain.
This belief I take to be a disastrous error. You cannot take all luggage with you on all journeys; on one journey even your right hand and your right eye may be among the things you have to leave behind. We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre: rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two, and each of those into two again, and at each fork you must make a decision. . . .It is still 'either-or'. If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell. (vii-ix)
The choice between the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of hell is clear in The Chronicles of Narnia. The story opens with the four siblings Lucy, Edmond, Peter, and Susan being sent to the home of a mysterious professor in the English countryside to escape the nightly bombings of London during the Battle of Britain. While playing in the large country manor one day the children stumble onto an old wooden wardrobe or bureau which is in truth a portal that opens onto the frozen Kingdom of Narnia.
Here the four children will be tempted (Edmond as he accepts the Witch's offer of Turkish Delight and betrays his friends) and challenged as they must do their part to battle the forces of the White Witch, Jadis, in the climactic final scene. And dominating the Kingdom is Aslan, the great Lion who rules Narnia and who guides the children into truths about themselves they could only discover there in Narnia and the adversities they must face together. Without spoiling too much of the story line for readers as yet unfamiliar with The Chronicles of Narnia, let me point out a handful of themes and related questions for parents to explore with their children both before and after viewing the film.
Why does Lewis select a Lion to play the part of the Ruler of Narnia? Animals have been used throughout literary history to depict or represent deity. For instance, in Celtic literature a Stag is often used since this was the noblest and most majestic animal that Celts would have known in their part of the British Isles.
What unique qualities does a Lion possess which make it suitable for such a portrayal? Consider the following from the book of Revelation (5:5): "Weep not, behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the book and to loose the seven seals thereof." Even Holy Scripture depicts Christ the Lord as a Lion and says of the righteous that they are "as bold as a lion" (Prov. 28:1). Ask your children which animal they might choose to represent God in such a tale and why? Kids have wonderful imaginations and their answers may surprise you.
As Lucy, Edmond, Peter, and Susan walk through the wardrobe they find the Kingdom of Narnia frozen in a perpetual winter under the grip of the White Witch. Only by defeating her in open battle can the Kingdom be released from her icy clutches.
Why does Lewis choose to depict this bondage to Jadis as an unending winter? Think about this in terms of the theme of light and darkness. St. John writes in the beginning of his Gospel that "The Light shined in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not" (John 1:5). Christ said of Himself "I am the Light of the world, he that follows me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life." (John 8:12) Christ even tells us "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matt.5:14,16).
Winter is dark and cold. In what ways do we experience sin and estrangement from God as cold and darkness? What does it mean to walk in the light of Christ? Ask your children to recall a time they were afraid of the dark or gladdened to find some light. Share a story with them from your own childhood and talk with them about how this theme is portrayed in Narnia.
You will discover many kinds of creatures in The Chronicles of Narnia; fauns, satyrs, minotaurs, dragons, unicorns, and winged horses as well as other animals we are more familiar with like polar bears, wolves, and bears. You will also notice how some creatures are enslaved to the service of the White Witch while others volunteer their service to the children and the protectors of Narnia who fight for its freedom.
Holy Scripture is also replete with stories of animals. Noah took two of every living creature into the Ark to save them from the Great Flood. Adam and Eve are deceived in the Garden of Eden by the serpent. Daniel is placed in the Lion's Den but emerges unharmed after God sent an angel to protect him. The prophet Elijah is fed by ravens. Balaam's donkey speaks to him to scold him when he tries to avoid doing God's will. And Jonah is swallowed up by the great fish that spits him after three days onto land so he can complete his task of leading Nineveh to repentance.
In the movie, the created order is alternately enslaved to the kingdom of darkness or liberated and transformed by the Kingdom of God. Consider this very compelling passage written by St. Paul to the Romans:
For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body" (Rom. 8:19-23).
Nature itself participates and anticipates the salvation of the world. The Lord told Nicodemus in the garden: "For God so loved the cosmos.." Ask your children how they see animals and the world around them as being involved in our salvation. Notice how the creatures in service to the White witch are deformed and distorted and disfigured while those in service to Aslan seem noble and intelligent and beautiful. Ask your children after viewing the film to draw the most beautiful creature they can imagine or the most hideous.
Why did Lewis depict children as central characters in his book? You will notice during the movie that Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter are charged with responsibilities much greater than would be entrusted to children their ages in "the real world." Quite often we unwittingly send the massage to our little ones that they are of little account or that -- as I heard so often as a child -- "children are to be seen and not heard."
But the Lord says just the opposite:
Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it." And He took them up in His arms, put His hands on them, and blessed them" (Mark 10:13-15).
We must become like children if we are to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. No doubt an adult who happened upon the wardrobe would have turned back before ever reaching the lamp-post in Narnia, convinced he or she was overwrought and in need of a sedative. But children have the ability to see beyond the ordinary and to perceive the things of God in everyday events. And once they are blessed and empowered by Aslan for battle they prove themselves to be formidable warriors indeed. Share with your children the words of St. John who wrote; "You are of God, little children, because you have overcome them (evil spirits), because greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world" (1 John 4:4) and again the words of St. Paul who wrote; "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:13).
C.S. Lewis' poignant words above about the "either-or" reality of our spiritual journey ring particularly true in the imagery of this film. There can be no accommodation with the Kingdom of the White Witch if the hoary winter is to be lifted. Only Aslan's sacrifice on the stone table and his resurrection can restore Narnia to its former warmth and glory and deliver the creatures of Narnia from their bondage. We are engaged in a battle ever so much more real and fraught with eternal implications than that depicted in the Chronicles of Narnia.
For ourselves, for our children, and for our salvation it is vital that we take full advantage of the release of this wonderful film to explore these themes and the many others not touched upon above. The power of myth to convey essential truths is fully in line with the parables of the New Testament, only in our time we have become such literalists that we fail to see the import such myths carry and the truths they have the power to deliver.
So, enjoy the movie and talk about it with your children. Use it as an opportunity to discuss our most precious Faith with them. And if you haven't already done so, by all means, buy the Narnia series for your family this Christmas.
Fr. Apostolos Hill is the assistant priest at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Denver, Colorado.